Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Decline of surface temperature and salinity in the western tropical Pacific Ocean in the Holocene epoch


In the present-day climate, surface water salinities are low in the western tropical Pacific Ocean and increase towards the eastern part of the basin1. The salinity of surface waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean is thought to be controlled by a combination of atmospheric convection, precipitation, evaporation and ocean dynamics2, and on interannual timescales significant variability is associated with the El Niño/Southern Oscillation cycles. However, little is known about the variability of the coupled ocean–atmosphere system on timescales of centuries to millennia. Here we combine oxygen isotope and Mg/Ca data from foraminifers retrieved from three sediment cores in the western tropical Pacific Ocean to reconstruct Holocene sea surface temperatures and salinities in the region. We find a decrease in sea surface temperatures of 0.5 °C over the past 10,000 yr, whereas sea surface salinities decreased by 1.5 practical salinity units. Our data imply either that the Pacific basin as a whole has become progressively less salty or that the present salinity gradient along the Equator has developed relatively recently.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Western tropical Pacific marine sediment core locations and corresponding climate records.
Figure 2: Reconstructed records for WTP sites.
Figure 3: Stacked (average value) (a) δ18Osw and (b) SST records from Fig. 2, with 1σ uncertainty envelope (grey).


  1. Levitus, S. & Boyer, T. P. World Ocean Atlas 1994 Vol. 3, Salinity (NOAA Atlas NESDIS, US Department of Commerce, Washington DC, 1994)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Cronin, M. F. & McPhaden, M. J. Upper ocean salinity balance in the western equatorial Pacific. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 27567–27587 (1998)

  3. Sun, D.-Z. & Trenberth, K. E. Coordinated heat removal from the equatorial Pacific during the 1986–87 El Niño. Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 2659–2662 (1998)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. McPhaden, M. J. Genesis and evolution of the 1997–98 El Niño. Science 283, 950–954 (1999)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Aggarwal, P. K., Fröhlich, K., Kulkarni, K. M. & Gourcy, L. L. Stable isotope evidence for moisture sources in the Asian summer monsoon under present and past climate regimes. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, doi:10.1029/2004GL019911 (2004).

  6. Fairbanks, R. G. et al. Evaluating climate indices and their geochemical proxies measured in corals. Coral Reefs 16, S93–S100 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Morimoto, M. et al. Salinity records for the 1997-98 El Niño from Western Pacific corals. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, doi:10.1029/2001GL013521 (2002)

  8. Nürnberg, D., Bijma, J. & Hemleben, C. Assessing the reliability of magnesium in foraminiferal calcite as a proxy of water mass temperature. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 60, 803–814 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Lea, D. W., Pak, D. K. & Spero, H. J. Climate impact of late Quaternary equatorial Pacific sea surface temperature variations. Science 289, 1719–1724 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Oppo, D. W., Linsley, B. K., Rosenthal, Y., Dannenmann, S. & Beaufort, L. Orbital and suborbital climate variability in the Sulu Sea, western tropical Pacific. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 4, doi:1029/2001GC000260 (2003).

  11. Fairbanks, R. A 17,000-year glacio-eustatic sea level record: influence of glacial melting rates on the Younger Dryas event and deep-ocean circulation. Nature 342, 637–642 (1989)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Clement, A. C., Seager, R. & Cane, M. A. Orbital controls on the El Niño/Southern Oscillation and the tropical climate. Paleoceanography 14, 441–456 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Gagan, M. K. et al. Temperature and surface-ocean water balance of the mid-Holocene tropical western Pacific. Science 279, 1014–1018 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Liu, Z., Kutzbach, J. & Wu, L. Modeling climate shift of El Niño variability in the Holocene. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 2265–2268 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Schmittner, A., Appenzeller, Z. & Stocker, T. F. Enhanced Atlantic freshwater export during El Niño. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 1163–1166 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Prell, W. L. & Van Campo, E. Coherent response of Arabian Sea upwelling and pollen transport to late Quaternary monsoonal winds. Nature 323, 526–528 (1986)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. DeMenocal, P., Ortiz, J., Guilderson, T. & Sarnthein, M. Coherent high- and low-latitude climate variability during the Holocene warm period. Science 288, 2198–2202 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Haug, G. H. et al. Southward migration of the Intertropical Convergence Zone through the Holocene. Science 293, 1304–1308 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Waelbroeck, C. et al. Sea-level and deep water temperature changes derived from benthic foraminifera isotopic records. Quat. Sci. Rev. 21, 295–305 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank M. Rincon for analytical assistance. This research was supported by the US-NSF-OCE.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lowell Stott.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure

This figure displays the AMS 14C ages for samples from sites discussed in the text. These AMS-depth values were used to calculate sediment accumulation rates for the sites and to estimate ages for samples through the core sequences. (DOC 33 kb)

Supplementary Table

Table of sample depth, age, G. ruber δ18Oc, G. ruber Mg/Ca, Mg/Ca-temperature estimate, and δ18OSW (SMOW) values calculated for samples from each of the Indonesian cores discussed in the manuscript. (XLS 92 kb)

Supplementary Discussion

This discussion describes how the age model for each site was established and gives details about the sediment accumulation rates in the Holocene. Details of the analytical methods are also described. (DOC 36 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Stott, L., Cannariato, K., Thunell, R. et al. Decline of surface temperature and salinity in the western tropical Pacific Ocean in the Holocene epoch. Nature 431, 56–59 (2004).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing